The California missions were established in a chain along the coast line, none of them far from the ocean. The Franciscan padres realized that there were many Native Californians living inland, away from the coast, who were not being brought into the missions. They wanted to establish more missions inland, but the government officials did not agree with this.
As a compromise, the padres were allowed to build sub-missions, or asistencias, in places where there was an Indian population that was not coming to the main mission. The asistencia served as a sub-mission or branch of the “mother” mission. The asistencia was much smaller than the main mission, though there were living quarters, workshops and crops in addition to a church.
Mission San Rafael began as an asistencia for Mission San Francisco de Asís in 1817, but grew to a size where it was granted full mission status in 1823. Besides San Rafael, there were four other asistencias: Nuestra Señora de los Angeles founded by Mission San Gabriel in 1784; Santa Margarita de Cortona founded by Mission San Luis Obispo in 1787; San Antonio de Pala founded by Mission San Luis Rey in 1810; and Santa Ysabél founded by Mission San Diego in 1818.
Many missions had large ranchos or estancias at some distance from the mission compound. More than 20 of these estancias had small chapels for the use of the people who worked and lived at the rancho. A padre would come occasionally to conduct services at the estancia chapel. These chapels were sometimes referred to as asistencias, but were not considered as sub-missions according to church records.
San Antonio de Pala
In 1795 Padre Juan Mariner chose a mission site in the Pala Valley, along a river where many Indians lived. This site was overlooked when Mission San Luis Rey was founded closer to the ocean. As the years passed, Padre Peyri at San Luis Rey was unable to convince the Indians in the Pala Valley to leave their beautiful home and come to San Luis Rey. On June 13, 1816, a church was dedicated at Pala and a sub-mission founded. Before this, Mission San Luis Rey had used land in the Pala Valley as a rancho.
The Pala asistencia was named for St. Anthony, an early Franciscan missionary. A church was constructed of adobe bricks with a tile roof. Soon other buildings -- a granary, dormitories for women and men, and storehouses -- were added to the compound. An irrigation system brought water to the crops that were planted there. The fields of grain at San Antonio de Pala were large enough to supply most of the grain for Mission San Luis Rey. San Antonio de Pala also had a vineyard and orchards of fruit and olive trees.
One of Pala’s charming features is its bell wall that was made separate from the rest of the buildings. Two bells hang in the bell wall, one above the other. A cross tops the wall, and at the foot of the cross, a cactus is growing out of the adobe. Some say that Father Peyri planted the cactus there when the church and bell wall were new. Others say that a bird dropped a seed and the cactus grew from that.
San Antonio de Pala functioned as an asistencia until 1835, when it was taken over by the Mexican government. In the early 1900s some restoration was attempted. In the 1960s the buildings were rebuilt. The church is now used for services by the Indians living nearby.
In 1816 the padres at Mission San Diego had asked the governor for permission to found a mission 60 miles east of San Diego in the Santa Ysabél Valley. Their request was denied. In September 1818, the padres went ahead and put up a temporary chapel there to serve the 250 Indians living in the area. Soon there was a permanent adobe church, granary, and living quarters.
Santa Ysabél was in operation until the Mexican government secularized all the missions, taking them from the Catholic Church. The Santa Ysabél buildings were destroyed, but a padre continued to hold services in a brush shelter. For some years the two bells of Santa Ysabél hung from a wooden frame. They had been purchased by the Indians, for six burro loads of barley and wheat, to preserve them.
The chapel at Santa Ysabél was rebuilt in 1924 with money from a Canadian-born missionary priest, Edmond La Pointe, who served there for 29 years. La Pointe is buried at Santa Ysabél. The church, now known as St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, is a parish church.
Santa Margarita de Cortona
The asistencia of Santa Margarita was once a rancho of Mission San Luis Obispo. It was named for St. Margaret of Lavinio and Cortona, Italy. The rancho was granted asistencia status in 1787.
Santa Margarita was located about ten miles northeast of Mission San Luis Obispo and about 30 miles south of Mission San Miguel. Padres from these missions as well as from Mission San Antonio de Padua sometimes met at Santa Margarita to visit and to discuss religious matters.
From its beginning as a rancho, Santa Margarita was a success. It covered 17,000 acres with grain fields and pastures for cattle, sheep and horses. As an asistencia, it had a chapel, priests’ quarters, storage rooms, a mill, and tallow vats. It was a stopping place for travelers on El Camino Real, and a place of refuge for the people of Mission San Carlos Borromeo when they fled from the pirate Bouchard.
Today there is only one small portion of a ruined building to show where Santa Margarita stood.
Nuestra Señora de los Angeles
This church was founded by the padres at Mission San Gabriel after 44 settlers established the pueblo (town) of Los Angeles in 1781. A new church was built in 1814. The present church, known as the Old Plaza Church, was constructed from materials of the previous church.
The City of Los Angeles has grown up around the site of this former asistencia. The church continues to be the parish church for the neighborhood.